How could biometrics be used for the better delivery of health?

According to a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine, 1.5 million people were harmed by medication errors; similar studies indicate that 400,000 injuries occur yearly in hospitals as a direct result of medication errors. A large majority of these errors are pharmacy misfills.

The most common prescription errors were due to the pharmacist putting someone else’s medicine to the customer, mostly due to mis-identification of the patient. Other common errors involved the pharmacist putting the wrong prescription medicine in the pill bottle, or putting the right medicine in the incorrect dosage in the pill bottle, or mislabeling the medicine with the wrong instructions.

In addition to damaging a patient’s health, or even causing death to the patient, due to receiving the incorrect medication, the societal losses due to such errors include the imposition of increased health care costs to everyone due to the medicine being given makes the recipient sicker, not healthier, and in return, causes medical costs to rise for everyone.

While a 2002 legislation by the FDA requiring bar code scanning for all patients at hospitals has reduced medication errors by 86% in the nine years since the law - these kinds of incidents resulting from medical errors are still too common to ignore, especially in situations when the patient does not have a bar code. This is often the case when getting re-fills for medications; recent reports indicate that pharmacists estimate a 10% error rate in medication re-fills.

One of the major issues hindering the healthcare industry from delivering more accurate healthcare is a seamless method of identification of patients that works consistently and reliably. In an ideal situation, such a method for biometric identification would be relatively inexpensive to deploy at a larger scale, so that the cost of such a method would not prevent patients from being able to always identify themselves; even when they are not admitted as a patient in a particular hospital.

Healthcare institutions have evaluated a wide variety of technologies to help solve this problem, and biometric technologies for identification have been one of the main areas of active research in hospital and pharmacy management. Such experiments have shown that traditional biometric technologies do not work effectively in such situations.

We believe that modern biometric technologies could be applied in this domain to significantly reduce errors that arise from patient mis-identification.

The latex gloves worn by many healthcare professionals have made the widespread application of fingerprint enrollment and authentication quite challenging. It’s also been shown that frequent hand washing causes dry skin which causes many commercial fingerprint sensors to not be able to authenticate correctly, in a reliable and consistent fashion.

Other biometric technologies like retina scanning and iris scanning are still really expensive and inconvenient, which reduces their applications to mostly blocking insecure transactions, instead of facilitating secure, authentic transactions.

Over the last five years, smartphones are also becoming more commonplace in healthcare. Medical professionals will often use text messages and similar instant messaging communication media to communicate with each other about patient status. Even tablets are starting to become more prevalent - medical schools now provide students tablets to use as textbooks and to round on patients. With this increase in the use of mobile technology, comes the increased risk for HIPAA compliance issues.

As smartphones are outselling feature phones in the United States, it’s not just healthcare workers that are using them - more and more patients are coming to hospitals and pharmacies with a smartphone or tablet in their pocket, and pharmacies and hospitals are getting on the smartphone bandwagon by coming up with customized apps as well.

This increased prevalence of smartphones among patients and healthcare professionals along with the dire need of the healthcare industry as a whole of a simple, yet secure and reliable way of identifying a patient receiving a particular course of treatment or medication presents unique opportunities. The next phase of healthcare information technology would benefit greatly by focusing on tying these two trends together to provide a cohesive solution.

The big question is, is there already a way to tie these two recent trends together to provide a security and identification solution that is scalable, inexpensive and significantly better than all current technologies? Learn more in my next post.